Commentary

The Right to Bear Arms…

This article originally appeared on National Review on September 6, 2002.

Nearly a year has passed since the worst act of terrorism in America’s history. The World Trade Center site is clear, the sky above is empty. And fear of another deadly attack remains. Some people plan to avoid flying on the 11th; the FAA is restricting flights over the three crash sites — for three days in New York City. At the end of August a so-called miscommunication between pilot and air-traffic controllers led the government to scramble two F-16s to escort the jet to Baltimore-Washington airport.

America must prevent a terrorist ever again from turning a civilian aircraft into a de facto military cruise missile. The best way to do so is to arm pilots.

Airline security remains a leaky sieve. In March 2002 a test at 32 airports found that screeners missed 30 percent of guns, 60 percent of simulated explosives, and 70 percent of knives. Controls over who works for the airlines and provides a variety of airport services are weak — a few even more recent media tests suggest not much has changed since March.

One answer would be to allow at least some armed passengers — retired and off-duty cops, for instance. But we needn’t go that far. Just arm flight personnel.

The Israeli airline El Al provides its flight attendants as well as pilots with guns. Weapons could be hidden or smart guns, which can only be fired by pre-programmed users, could be employed to mitigate the danger of a hijacker attempting to overpower a flight attendant in order to get the weapon.

At least pilots should be allowed to carry weapons. Many pilots are former military personnel and, explained Stephen Luckey, chairman of the National Flight Security Committee of the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), to Congress: “are willing and prepared to assume the responsibility for training and carrying a weapon.”

Ellen Saracini, the widow of one of the pilots killed on September 11, called for arming pilots as a “last line of defense.” Her husband have favored arming pilots, and had they possessed guns on September 11, “it stands to reason that the loss of life and property damage could have been vastly different.”

In fact, starting in 1961 the FAA allowed pilots to be armed. Some carried weapons through 1987, apparently to protect mail carried on passenger aircraft. Yet the list of objections regarding protecting people, vocally shared by the Bush administration, which reportedly is about to announce a small test program of arming a few pilots, in an attempt to prevent Congress from acting, remains long. For instance, there are fears of aerial shoot-out — from many who favor the use of armed marshals to guard flights.

But as the Hoover Institution’s Thomas Sowell points out: “The main reason for having guns for self-defense anywhere is deterrence.” Arming pilots means no shot is ever likely to be fired.

Anyway, planes can and have flown and landed after sustaining major structural damage. Ronald Hinderberger, director of safety at Boeing Commercial Airplanes, told Congress that a bullet hole or two would not depressurize a plane; even a shattered window would pose “little hazard to continued flight and landing.”

Former Transportation Security Administration head John Magaw argued that marshals were the answer, since they “will do whatever they have to, to the point of giving up their own life, to make sure that that cockpit stays safe.” Alas, there are 33,000 to 35,000 flights per day in the U.S., compared to only 1,000 sky marshals today (up from 50 before September 11): “Your chances of having an air marshal on your flight are not as good as winning some of the lotteries,” opines Paul Hudson, executive director of the Aviation Consumer Action Project. To patrol every flight would cost billions of dollars annually. And that’s if the program was run well.

USA Today recently reported on scores of resignations, complaints about simultaneously over- and under-utilizing existing marshals, employing new marshals before completion of their background checks, and abandonment of the precision marksmanship test. This a year after the 9/11 attacks.

Some critics of guns contend that Tasers, or stun guns, would suffice. But wires break, the rechargeable batteries run down, and stun guns may not penetrate thick clothing. Jeff Zack, spokesman for the Association of Flight Attendants, opines: “We’re against the pilots having guns until we know that they’re going to come out of the cockpit, into the cabin, to defend us and the passengers.” Otherwise “what we end up with is planes getting to their destinations with a bunch of dead people in back.”

But at least the plane would get to its destination. Arming pilots does not make the flight attendants and passengers worse off. To the contrary, it makes hijackings less likely to occur in the first place. And it insures that suicidal terrorists won’t be able to use the plane as a weapon. First arm pilots. Then debate whether they should ever leave the cockpit with their weapons.

Another contention is that pilots need to concentrate on their job. John Magaw said pilots were to maintain “positive control of that aircraft … get it on the ground as quickly as you can, regardless of what’s happening back there.” But doing so might be tough if armed terrorists smash down the door, roust the pilots from their seats, and murder them. With a pilot and copilot, in an emergency one could guard the door while the other landed the plane.

A miscellany of other objections are equally senseless. That, for instance, other security steps make arming pilots unnecessary. Sen. Fritz Hollings (D., S.C.), chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee and the main roadblock in the Senate says: “With a secure cockpit door on every aircraft there will not be a need for armed pilots. However, cockpit doors could be blown off with explosives. Pilots have use the bathroom and receive meals.

Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta complains about the cost of training pilots. But any expense must be compared against the price of the alternatives: hiring sky marshals, adding airport security personnel, and, of course, enduring additional terrorist strikes.

One of the strangest objections to allowing pilots to carry firearms is that liability standards would have to be adjusted. This is a criticism that could only be raised in a society where liability has run wild.

But as bad as it would be for an airline (and possibly the government) to face cases arising out of an errant shooting, imagine the litigation nightmare of another successful terrorist assault. Just limit liability for good faith defensive efforts. Worries about liability seem particularly frivolous compared to the federal government’s threat to shoot down a hijacked airplane.

In just the first seven months after September 11, military aircraft responded to 350 “air events,” such as when a plane was off course or a potentially troublesome passenger appeared to be on board. Observes Dave Kopel of the Independence Institute (and NRO-er), “What has been utterly incomprehensible is that the federal government considers destroying a hijacked airliner, and thereby killing every single passenger, more palatable than allowing the arming of pilots or passengers.”

Transportation Security Administration head John Magaw is gone, fired by Secretary Mineta. President George W. Bush should do the same to Secretary Mineta, and then order the arming of all, not must a minuscule share of, pilots. The Senate should overrule Majority Leader Thomas Daschle and Commerce Committee Chairman Fritz Hollings (D., S.C.) to bring legislation to arm pilots to a vote.

So long as there are hijackers willing to die attempting to kill Americans, it is important that someone on the plane ensures that they die before gaining control. The best way to achieve that is to arm the pilots.

Doug Bandow is a fellow at the Cato Institute.